220 Followers
100 Following
carols

book reviews forevermore

Goodreads refugee and wordpress blogger

 

“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”
― Voltaire

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot Overall, a four star read that should probably be required reading for both biology and American history classes. (Actually, it was a far more interesting read than that makes it sound). While I had heard a great deal of buzz on the book, I wasn't prepared for how the story evolved. The book alternates between Henrietta Lacks' personal history, that of her family, a little of medical history and Skoot's actual pursuit of the story, which helps develop the story in historical context. Skoots included a lot more science than I expected, and even with ten years in the medical field, I was horrified at times. Skoots does a decent job of maintaining a journalistic tone, but some of the things she relates are terrible, from the way Henrietta grew up to cervical cancer treatment in the 50s and 60s. Part of the evil is the violence her family inflicted on each other, and it's one of the truly uncomfortable areas of the book. I think that discomfort is important, because part of where this story comes from has to do with slavery and poverty. There isn't really an ethical high ground here, and that's part of Skoot's skill in setting up the story, and part of the problem in being a white woman telling the story of a black woman. The only reason I didn't give this a five star rating is that the narrative started to fall apart at the end, leaving behind the stories of the cell line and focus more on the breakdown of Henrietta's daughter, Deborah. While I understand she is the touchstone for the story, that she is partly telling the story of the mother through the daughter, much of Henrietta and the science is sidelined.Interesting questions popped up while reading; namely, why does everyone equate Henrietta's cancer cells with her person? As an illustration, if you tell people they have a cancerous tumor, the reaction is "get rid of it." It is categorized as "other" in everyone's mind and not recognized it as an intrinsic part of the person with cancer. It is not "them." Biologically speaking, I'm not sure the book answered the question of whether of not the HeLa cells actually were genetically identical to Henrietta, or if they were mutated--altered DNA. While that might be cold comfort, it's a huge philosophical and scientific question that is the pivot point for a number of issues. Treating the cells as if they were "normal" is part of what lead the scientists into disaster as evidenced by the discovery that so many cell lines were HeLa contaminated (I don't believe that transmission mechanism was explained either, which irks me). It also could be the basis for a sophisticated legal and ethical argument.